Contact North | Contact Nord’s Reflections on Micro-Credentials
A Growing Complex Ecosystem of Learning Choices
In a city of over a million people in Canada (e.g., Toronto, Montreal Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary, Ottawa-Gatineau), there can be over 3,000 providers of adult learning offering over 30,000 learning experiences each year.
A recent US study from the non-profit organization Credential Engine shows colleges, polytechnics, universities, and Indigenous institutes provide one-third of the learning opportunities to citizens in each community. The balance of the learning offered comes from non-academic providers, international providers (e.g., Coursera, FutureLearn, Udemy) or global corporations like Microsoft, Siemens, and Amazon Web Services, local providers and secondary schools offering adult learning. A student leaving high school has more than half a million learning options to choose from.
Micro-credentials: The Strategic Intention
Into this mix, we now have micro-credentials.
While short courses focused on knowledge, skills and competencies are not new, Ontario’s version of micro-credentials were intended to be. The Government of Ontario made clear they were to be distinct in their announcement of the initial $59.5 million in funding in November 2020:
“.. rapid training programs offered by postsecondary education institutions across the province that can help you get the skills that employers need. Micro-credentials help people retrain and upgrade their skills to find new employment”. (our emphasis)
The framework developed by eCampusOntario through collaborative dialogue also gave emphasis to core features of what they were intended to be:
- Based on harmonized skills and competency language and aligned with a competency framework, such as ESCO1.
- Focused on performance competencies explicitly aligned to underlying knowledge, attitudes and skills.
- Assessment based on evidence of the achievements of outcomes.
- Transcriptable so evidence of performance was visible to employers.
- Endorsed by industry, employer organizations, professional or other body representing the employers.
This framework is similar to that developed by CICan and to other frameworks, such as those developed for the EU or New Zealand.
Compliance with this framework appears to be low:
- Few micro-credentials are competency-based or assessed.
- Few carry support, endorsement or other involvement of an industry or employer partner.
- Many look like three-credit courses split into one-credit modules.
- Many employers have yet to recognize them, use them as recruitment and selection tools or see their value.
The Emerging Market
Ontario leads Canada in the provision of micro-credentials. There are 3,079 micro-credential courses (1,796 of which are eligible for Ontario Student Assistance Program (OSAP) funding) and 495 modular, stackable micro-credential programs (e.g., the REVIT program of three micro-credentials leading to certification at Humber College) available in Ontario designed, developed, and deployed by publicly funded colleges, universities and Indigenous institutes.
In addition, some private colleges in Ontario, especially in key fields like Personal Support Workers (PSW) (80% of whom are trained in the Ontario private college sector), are now offering micro-credentials. Different regulatory rules apply to private colleges micro-credential offerings versus the regulations and frameworks governing public sector institutions.
Key to Ontario’s strategy is to some of the micro-credentials eligible for OSAP funding, something which many other jurisdictions have not done. Unofficial estimates from the Ministry of Colleges and Universities suggest 10,000 micro-credentials are eligible OSAP funding since 2020.
Understanding the Complex Offer
Contact North | Contact Nord has been looking systematically at the nature of micro-credentials around the world and we identified at least ten types of micro-credentials:
1. On demand micro-learning leading to badges.
For example, the Ontario Work-Based Learning Consortium developed a suite of micro-learning modules, each of which take less than 10 minutes to complete.
Covering topics like “understanding blueprints” or “choosing the best precision measuring instrument”, this mobile learning delivered on demand in self-directed learning modules meet skills needs as they arise. Others are offering short, on demand modules with badges so learners can demonstrate and share their skills and competencies with employers or potential employers.
2. Gap Based, Competency Driven Learning.
Rather than having to complete an entire course or program of study, students are assessed (using competency assessments) and their demonstrable capabilities accepted. A personalized program of study is then developed which enables them to secure the balance of skills through a variety of learning routes.
3. Social and Non-Profit Micro-Credentials.
Non-profit, public and philanthropic organizations also have skill shortages or upskilling requirements. They are responding by offering online short courses (six-10 weeks) requiring six to eight hours of study.
Wellness Works Canada does something similar with its asynchronous assessment and learning program for those who work on workplace health and wellness.
4. The “Tease” Micro-Credential.
In this version of the micro-credential, a college or university offers one semester (or shorter), topic-based courses which introduce aspects of a longer (usually one semester long three-credit course).
At the University of Ottawa, for example, the undergraduate micro-credit is equivalent to either one or 1.5 credits and may be “stacked” to create a three-credit elective course, transferable to a degree.
5. Industry Driven Micro-Credential.
A post-secondary institution partners with an industry association, employer or professional body to offer a micro-credential in which the competencies and assessment methods are driven by the industry. The intention is to guarantee that “graduates” have the legally defensible skills employers are seeking.
For example, FutureLearn (a global MOOC provider) partnered with CISCO to offer a thirty week (120 hour) three module micro-credential focused on networking technologies.
A similar program is offered by Centennial College in Ontario.
6. Pic-N-Mix Microcredential.
Both Royal Roads University and UBC offer students a chance to “build their own certificate”. Their focus is on leadership and management.
Both require a small core of competencies and then learners choose their program electives from a range of options. Royal Roads offers their program onsite and UBC delivers their program entirely online.
7. Faculty Driven Micro-Credentials.
In this version of a micro-credential (common in the UK and Australia with some examples in Canada), a college or university permits a faculty member to “showcase” their course.
An example is the University of Newcastle (Australia) nine hour course (offered via edX) called Fairy Tales – Meanings, Messages and Morals. Successful completion of this course can be counted to an undergraduate degree.
8. Assessment Only Micro-Credentials.
In this version of a micro-credential, a learner calls for an assessment of their knowledge, skills and capabilities against a competency profile. If they are assessed as competent, they are awarded a credential. If they are partially successful, guidance is provided as to what they need to work on to complete the credential.
The University of Wisconsin Flex program in the US offers Certificates in Health Care Information, Project Management, Business Analytics and Substance Use Disorder Counselling by this route. Coursework is not required.
9. The Short Course.
A great many of the Canadian micro-credentials are short-courses based on an existing program of study delivered either in class, online or through hybrid learning. They may or may not have a competency-based framework or be supported by industry – they represent a college or university view of what may be helpful to employers. Few are available on demand.
10. The Industry Delivered Short Course.
This micro-credential is industry or profession supported, available on demand and is delivered in either fully online mode or through hybrid learning (often with a bootcamp component).
An example is a Google Career Certificate.
In Ontario, there are no examples of assessment only micro-credentials, but these are available elsewhere in Canada – e.g., via trustedskills.org in Calgary.
We can identify a range of issues with micro-credentials in Ontario.
The Government of Ontario, aware of concerns and challenges, is commissioning a year-long evaluation of their design, deployment and use at this time.
The issues are:
1. Lack of compliance with the framework.
Any review of the range of micro-credentials available would suggest that few comply with all components of the eCampusOntario framework.
2. Failure to link each micro-credential to an occupational standard or statement of competency and the absence in many of any endorsement from an employer organization, professional body or qualifications agency.
This is made more difficult by the absence of a national vocational qualifications framework in Canada.
3. Lack of use of competency-based assessment.
Competency-based assessment produces evidence of the ability to perform tasks or demonstrate capability.
4. Lack of alignment of available micro-credentials with the skills in demand in Ontario.
There are a significant number of IT-related micro-credentials. Still, there are a few in other sectors where labour shortages are significant – e.g., heavy equipment operators, truck drivers, farm workers, psychiatric nursing, and construction – where micro-credentials currently either do not exist or not directly linked to the skills in demand.
5. Employer acceptance and use of micro-credentials.
There is little evidence at this time (either in Ontario or elsewhere) that micro-credentials are being used effectively in the recruitment and retention of employees.
6. The portability of micro-credentials.
Is a PSW certified in Ontario able to work as a PSW in Europe (under the Canada-European Union Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement) or in another province or US state?
7. Return on investment.
Learners ask whether the cost, time and effort placed in micro-credential produces a return, such as a promotion, securing a higher paying job or being able to transfer the micro-credential into a long-form credential (a diploma or degree). While some are modular, stackable, and transferable to a credit program, many are not.
In the absence of government funding, will micro-credentials survive as self-financing courses and programs? Given that just 10,000 students registered for the 1,796 OSAP eligible micro-credentials, registrations seem low.
9. Competitive market.
MOOC providers currently offer over 1,800 micro-credentials, many with strong industry support (especially in IT) and competitive pricing. Ontario learners can secure credentials from Stanford, MIT or the London School of Economics.
Do all groups within the community – especially newcomers, Indigenous learners and the disabled – have access to micro-credentials?
As has happened in other jurisdictions, a substantial independent review (about to be commissioned by the Ontario Ministry of Colleges and Universities) may lead to a refocusing of both OSAP eligible and the identification of key employment sectors in which micro-credentials may help reduce the skills gap which are currently under-represented in the micro-credential marketplace.
A similar review in New Zealand, where micro-credentials linked to the national qualifications framework were first offered in 2018, identified that micro-credentials needed to improve to:
- Better serve Indigenous and under-represented groups – Māori, Pacifica and disabled learners in New Zealand.
- Be better aligned with skills in demand and the specific competencies associated with these skills.
- Strengthening assessment to focus more on demonstrable competencies and seeing this focus as a key quality assurance mechanism.
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